Overcoming skepticism in higher education

The promise of a college education, particularly in the U.S., has been viewed as a path to better job opportunities, higher income, and increased satisfaction in many areas of life.

Going to college is often presented as an important rite of passage to adulthood as well, and for many first-generation families, it’s a significant achievement. Earning a degree in higher education is laden with meaning–a symbolic and practical step toward independence, maturity, and self-sufficiency.

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For the past several decades, however, the cost of college has risen precipitously. The expense of earning a degree has left many students and their families wondering whether it’s still worth the investment, especially when a college degree might not be the career-gateway it once was.

The student loan debt crisis has caused many to rethink their approach to higher education and look for new ways to develop skills for the future, without saddling themselves with crippling debt.

As a “mega-trend,” the skyrocketing cost of higher education is driving other trends: the rise of transfer activity, expanding ideas on enriching credentials for career-readiness, and a growing focus on the meaning of student success.

Transfer activity

According to the National Student Clearinghouse, higher education’s fall enrollments dropped again in 2019 for the eighth consecutive year. Demographic shifts, decreased international student enrollment in U.S. schools, and reduced federal and state funding for higher education are all factors that have contributed to the shrinking student population.

However, it is also worth noting that after more than a decade of cuts, the funding trend is finally starting to change. In 2019, all but three states increased their higher education funding.

As institutions see a smaller pool of freshman candidates and an increase in drop-outs and stop-outs, transfer students have become more attractive. In fact, studies indicate that transfer students are more likely to persist and complete degrees than direct-entry students.


New microcredential program helps students earn work-ready credentials

Western Governors University (WGU) has launched its first globally-available microcredential in information technology.

WGU’s IT Career Framework MicroBachelors is designed to create pathways for individuals looking to advance their IT careers. The new microcredential is credit-backed and stackable. It provides value as a standalone credential, but also allows working learners to apply credit towards a bachelor’s degree program at WGU, pending admission.

“WGU is committed to ensuring that we address the needs of working learners,” says WGU Provost and Chief Academic Officer Marni Baker Stein. “We’ve developed this program to serve as an industry-verified standalone credential as well as a stepping stone to several WGU bachelor’s degree programs in the College of IT. This pathway ensures that busy students acquire valuable credentials as they work toward their degrees.”


Student’s library work leads to a career in augmented reality

Dillon Cutaiar will graduate Virginia Tech in May 2020 with a job at Microsoft in his back pocket, thanks to his virtual and augmented reality work in the University Libraries at Virginia Tech.

Augmented reality adds digital elements, like Snapchat filters or holograms, to live experiences seen through smartphones, iPads, or other devices. Virtual reality typically uses goggles and immerses the wearer in an alternate experience that shuts out the physical world.

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During Cutaiar’s two-year paid fellowship with Todd Ogle in University Libraries Applied Research in Immersive Environments and Simulations, the computer science major freely took chances and pushed boundaries in virtual and augmented reality research.

He began with single-handedly fixing a project that preserves the history of Christiansburg Institute – an African American school once run by Booker T. Washington and located in Christiansburg, Virginia.


7 things that keep young women in engineering fields

As the nation faces a STEM worker crisis, renewed focus is paid to the shortage of young women who pursue engineering career paths in higher ed and who go on to remain in the engineering field. But rather than focusing on the factors that push young women out of engineering, researchers are instead looking at factors contributing to women’s success in engineering education and careers.

DiscoverE, which works to involve more girls and women in engineering, partnered with Concord Evaluation Group to publish Despite the Odds: Young Women who Persist in Engineering, a comprehensive literature review that pinpoints commonalities contributing to girls pursuing, and then remaining in, engineering education paths and careers.

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While there is much attention paid to the factors and events that push women off STEM education paths and out of engineering careers, there is less of a focus on the factors that help these disciplines retain women.


4 ways to drive inclusion in higher ed

The failure to drive inclusion in technical education today will have disastrous implications for our future. We are beginning to understand how unconscious biases become encoded in algorithms and datasets, resulting in poor decision-making by stakeholders and negative impacts for end users. Despite a total of 4.5 billion people currently connected to the internet worldwide, the tech industry continues to be less than representative of the users it serves.

Internationally, only 25 percent of professional computing positions are held by women, and this number has been steadily declining. This downturn is also being borne out in the university classroom–while 37 percent of computer science majors in 1984 were women, that number dropped to 18 percent by 2014.

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Underrepresented people of color — including those who identify as black, Latinx, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, American Indian or Alaskan Native, and mixed-race — make up a very small percentage of the entire tech workforce in the United States. Among Airbnb, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo, underrepresented women of color do not make up even 10 percent of each of these companies’ respective employee populations.

There are real consequences for continued innovation in the tech sector if employees do not map to population demographics. As educators, we can increase diversity in tech through making technical education more accessible and inclusive. Consciously structuring equitable approaches into our institutions can lead to better outcomes for students and the technology they will build in the future.


Gen Z, Millennials are more open to continuous learning

When it comes to updating professional skills, continuous learning is more important to Millennials and adult Gen Zers than to Gen Xers and Baby Boomers, according to a new survey.

More than half of Millennials (58 percent) and adult Gen Zers (52 percent) said success in their careers depends on updating their skills and knowledge frequently, compared with 35 percent of Gen Xers and 34 percent of Baby Boomers.

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However, younger workers are also more likely to feel stressed about the need to continuously update their skills and knowledge. Almost one-third (31 percent) of Millennials and Gen Zers said engaging in continuous learning stressed them out, compared with 19 percent of Gen Xers and 15 percent of Baby Boomers.

Overall, though, engaging in continuous learning was most often associated with good feelings, with “fulfilled,” “accomplished” and “motivated” the most cited emotions by all generations.


The 21st-century learning reformation

“We need to reinvent higher education,” says Nelson Baker, Ph.D., dean of professional education and professor in the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech). “We have to find ways to deliver quality education, new kinds of credentials that recognize that quality, and redefine what a degree means.”

He’s not alone in this opinion, and at the Digital Credentials Summit in Atlanta hosted by IMS Global Learning Consortium next month, he’ll be delivering a keynote on how higher education can adjust to better serve learners in a rapidly changing landscape.

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In today’s global workforce, employers need to be able to recognize and cultivate talent more quickly, in a more complex environment than degree vs. non-degree can satisfy. However, with no current standardized framework for alternative credentials, everyone is trying to make sense of it all.

“Our future workforce will continue to accelerate in these kinds of needs,” says Baker. “Higher education needs to serve people along their entire lifespan.


5 major online-learning challenges—and how to solve them

Karen Watts has been teaching adult education classes since 1999. A faculty member at Bellingham Technical College in Washington state, she has taught in both face-to-face and online environments throughout her career. In her online classes, Watts says, she often hears from students who are surprised that the class is “so hard.”

Perhaps they weren’t expecting an online course to be demanding. Or, maybe they lacked the self-discipline required to succeed in an online learning environment. Whatever the reason, Watts encounters many more students who struggle to learn online than she sees laboring in a traditional course.

Online learning can be more difficult for instructors as well as students. Not seeing students face to face makes it harder to gauge how they’re responding to the material, and there’s the additional hurdle of mastering the technology. But there are many strategies that instructors can use to help students succeed online, as well as approaches that institutions can employ to support faculty more effectively.

In interviews, faculty and administrators who have extensive experience with online learning revealed these five key challenges that often stand in the way of success—and tips for overcoming them.

1. Setting student expectations.
Many students don’t have realistic expectations about what online learning entails. Watts attributes this in part to the marketing campaigns undertaken by for-profit institutions: “The commercials often make it look like you just sit around in your pajamas and poke around on the keyboard for a few hours, and ta-da—you get a bachelor’s degree.”

Not only are some students under the false impression that online learning is easier than classroom-based learning, but Watts has found that some students “are not as hard-wired for online learning as others.” In addition to being self-motivated, students have to be realistic about their own comfort with technology, as well as their ability to read and do research.

“You need to be OK with being alone with yourself a lot,” she says. “I have run across students who really need that social component to excel in a class. When it’s just themselves and the computer for many hours, they can’t function well.”

At the beginning of an online class, Watts is up front about what students should expect. “I post links to articles about what students have said about being online students. And I explain to students how much they’re going to read, what my approach to instruction is, and how much time they’ll have.”

Institutions can help set proper expectations by making sure advisors are knowledgeable about online learning. Advisors should talk with students who enroll in online courses about what to expect and whether the courses are a good fit for them.

In addition, some institutions are creating onboarding programs to help students learn the skills they’ll need for success before they even begin an online course. For instance, the University of Memphis’ LiFE program measures the readiness of some adult students who are returning to school online and provides interventions for those who might lack the capacity to be successful. The program also includes an onboarding initiative called the Prep Academy, which is a series of mini-courses that students can work through at their own pace, covering topics such as academic strategies, time management, and self-discipline.


5 ways to support faculty technology use and preferences

Slightly more than half of faculty in an EDUCAUSE survey say they prefer teaching in a blended learning environment that includes both face-to-face and online learning components.

In the study, while 51 percent of faculty say a blended learning environment is their preference, combining the proportion of faculty who prefer completely face-to-face teaching environments (43 percent) and those who prefer mostly face-to-face environments (30 percent) shows a heavy preference for face-to-face interactions with students, note authors Joseph Galanek and Dana C. Gierdowski.

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One 9 percent of faculty say they prefer mostly or completely online learning environments.


College admissions officers still use social media, survey says

More and more admissions officers are using applicants’ social media profiles as part of the admissions process, according to a survey from Kaplan Test Prep.

Thirty-six percent of the nearly 300 admissions officers polled visit social media such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube to learn more about applicants–up from 25 percent last year and following a three-year decline in the practice since the high mark of 40 percent in Kaplan’s 2015 survey of 288 admissions officers. This comes as teens are increasingly using newer social platforms such as TikTok and Twitch.

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Of admissions officers who have checked out an applicant’s social media footprint, about one in five (19 percent) say they do it “often,” significantly higher than the 11 percent who said they checked “often” in the 2015 survey.